ARTICLES The civil society I know: David Emerson

The civil society I know: David Emerson

To launch the Inquiry into Civil Society, we interview some people about the sector that they know: how it has changed and how it will. First up is David Emerson, the former chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations.

  • What’s your biggest hope for civil society in the next ten years?
  • What’s your biggest fear for civil society in the next ten years?

That the above will not happen, and that divisions and consequent social tensions will become more acute. I would fear that the impact of social media could be to produce a greater atomisation of society, and that the dominant, and potentially bullying, voices will be those of the powerful; and that these could steer public ‘news’ towards belief, and away from evidence – e.g. the reappearance of ‘fake news’.

  • What do you expect to be the biggest driver of change in civil society in the coming years?

That this will be a combination of a group of strong influences – an ageing population; climate change; the availability of immense volumes of data (& who owns that); and the continuing effects of austerity – which together, and in ways we may not yet have anticipated, could lead to increasing divisions and potential discontent across society.

  • How do you think public attitudes to civil society have changed in the time you’ve been involved?

I have seen initially the greater recognition of the concept of ‘civil society’ itself, but which, perhaps as a consequence, may have become more of a ‘them’ rather than something of which we are all a part? This civil society has subsequently, like many public institutions latterly, been challenged by a loss of trust; by various forms of regulation being seen as not fit for purpose;  and by increased scepticism.

  • Which technological change has made the most difference to civil society over your career?

The widespread use of social media and greater access to more forms of news/information, both true and false. It is the impacts of this which have been very significant: the increased speed of activity; and the ubiquity of access meaning you can never escape from work, members, issues, media; together with the expectation on those working in civil society to always be available.

  • What one political moment has made the most difference to civil society in the time you’ve worked in it?

There have been a series of such moments but latterly for me the most significant have included: the financial crash of 2008; the Good Friday Agreement in N. Ireland; and the referendum of 2016.

  • Which changes to social attitudes have had the most influence on your work in your time in the sector?

There has been a welcome increase in the general recognition of the significance of diversity in all its forms, and of the greater value of employing the skills and experience of everyone in society. Against this, more recently there seems less acceptance or understanding of the value of a pluralist society which is accepting and tolerant of the range of potentially contrasting perspectives that civil society offers. More specifically the last 15 years has seen greater discussion of the concept of philanthropy, albeit without any sea change in giving behaviours just yet.

  • How have social-economic changes over your time involved in civil society affected your work?

The financial crash led to greater demands upon, but potentially less supply from, charitable foundations. An ageing society combined with changes in family structures have increased deprivation in parts of society while increasing wealth in others. More generally the greater emphasis on GDP as the ultimate measure of progress, combined with the apparent acceptance of business practices as being of primacy above all others, has been neither correct or appropriate.

  • How else has civil society changed in the time you’ve been involved?

Devolution within the UK and a consequent diversity of approaches within, and towards, their respective civil societies has mostly been beneficial. But we have also seen: increasing responsibility for the provision of services taken on by charities;  the gradual withdrawal of the state from functions historically recognised as their responsibility; and greater economic disparity regionally (North-South), and with the devolved countries.

  • In the age of Brexit, Trump and austerity, is it time for civil society to tool up and get more political?

Civil society should certainly become more confident about the ability to represent and be the voice of people who may be unable to speak for themselves. It is important though for civil society organisations to retain political neutrality while engaging in these processes – they need political sophistication. Additionally there are opportunities for greater engagement at ‘grass roots’ with all who comprise civil society, in order to provide the experience, evidence and arguments for positive change.

  • Do we have a crisis of democracy, and if so, how can civil society help renew it?

There is a potential crisis in that we can no longer rely on the quality of the information we receive via social media and other sources. There is a growing risk of a lack of  participation in civil society – the atomisation referred to above with individuals engaging only remotely with others via screen; not physically. Thus far social media and the breakdown of the established media seem to have helped powerful, rich voices especially, and these have tended to be regressive, rather than progressive. There remains a role for civil society in recognising the weak and disadvantaged in society where too often we have seen a growing sense that some can ‘rightfully’ be ignored or excluded: as benefit recipients, disabled, or immigrants.